Oil and Water
Capitalism, meet the Holy Spirit
BY JASON BLAIR
THERE WILL BE BLOOD: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Based upon Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Music, Jonny Greenwood. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano. Paramount Vantage/Miramax, 2007. R. 158 minutes.
Early in There Will Be Blood, a hard-headed prospector named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) strikes oil for the first time. The scene is jubilant but uncomplicated; so far, Daniel is more Ishmael than Ahab. In the shower of erupting oil, a splatter of movie grease splashes the camera lens, looking every bit like oil but nonetheless a prop. The moment might be called a blooper, a goof that results in a visual non sequitur, and in a lesser film it might be cited as evidence of mediocrity. But There Will Be Blood is not a lesser film. The oil smear lingers a heartbeat longer than it should, a black smudge of honor that I attribute as much to audacity as necessity. Why bother wiping things down with so much viscera yet to be spilled?
There Will Be Blood oozes any number of things — oil, blood, booze and sweat — but mostly it exudes confidence. It is a classic film by almost any measure, but a classic with a very dark heart. Like the industry it chronicles, the film is grueling and filthy. (Late in the film, when he’s semi-retired and probably insane, Daniel’s skin still wears a thin coat of oil.) It is a tremendously physical picture, with several bone breaks and hard falls, but the source of this physicality is resolutely Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis plays the younger Daniel as a solitary man of heroic strength, but as his holdings grow, Daniel becomes greedy, taking less pleasure in winning than in watching his opponents lose. When his adversaries try to cut deals, he replies by offering to cut their throats. His greed fuels his obsession for more and more oil until, gradually and then suddenly, his obsession annihilates what little humanity he possessed.
There Will Be Blood is set in motion when Daniel receives a visit from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a rancher’s son who offers the location of his oil-rich homestead in exchange for $500. Oil seeps from the ground, Paul says, but his father can’t extract it. Under the pretense of a quail hunt, Daniel and his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) set out for the Sunday property. Almost immediately, they find oil on the ground, as well as something stickier: Eli Sunday (also Paul Dano), a twin to his brother Paul, demands $5,000 for the land and another $5,000 for his church. Thus one betrayal follows another like a snake eating its own tail, resulting in a decades-long psychological war between Daniel, an atheist millionaire, and Eli, a dirt-poor evangelist.
Before There Will Be Blood is over, each man will bow before the other exactly once, with drastically different results. Dano, the mute teen from Little Miss Sunshine, is exceptional as both Sunday twins, especially considering he replaced another actor midway through production. But the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. For as long as there are movies, we will be talking about this performance. David Denby has compared it to the work of Laurence Olivier, and There Will Be Blood to Citizen Kane. But such comparisons omit the athleticism of Day-Lewis’ work here, which is as transformative and universally appealing as watching, say, Michael Jordan at his peak, when he appeared to be playing a different game than his opponents, so elevated were his abilities.
The film uses evening light to spectacular effect, suffusing the oil men with a primitive, menacing aura that avoids overtly romanticizing them. When a derrick catches fire, Daniel clearly takes pleasure in it; watching his face in shadows, you might be reminded, as I was, of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Both films explore the madness of a deranged male industry with almost no female presence whatsoever. What’s more, There Will Be Blood seems to have few points to make, at least directly. But director P.T. Anderson (Magnolia) exhibits fine control over the material, developing a deeply depicted portrait of a jaundiced megalomaniac who existed for one purpose only: to remove oil so that others might not.